We were given only about two months to plan for a trip to Europe; Paris was the destination. Our family Sunoco service station had received top ratings all around in the New England region. WOWEE! The trip was a congratulatory offering that we decided to take. So we made sure the business was organized, dogs taken care of and that the house was somewhat in order. Now we needed to figure out what to pack. It seems rain is always part of the weather pattern so jacket and umbrella was a must. I have to admit I checked online ‘how not to look like an American in Paris’. We did not want create a faux pas in that department so we stepped up our wardrobe choices. I guess proper shoes or the lack there of were a dead giveaway, so no white sneakers (not that we have any). Scarfs are the rage everywhere so that was a given. Neutral colors to mix and match were the top suggestions for clothing choices. Actually, we decided that every major city in the world has a dress code of sorts. Chic, in style and dressing up in clothes that actually fit are what you want to portray everywhere and not just Paris. We hoped we had packed right.
I had been a little nervous because our packet containing airline tickets, baggage tags and itinerary arrived only about a week before the departure date. Talk about cutting it close. Walking tours, a bus tour and a side trip to Versailles was on the agenda. Planned dinners at places outside of the hotel were included. We bought language and walking guide books just to get a sense of place. To try to fit in by speaking French (a wee bit) was the key.
Leaving Logan Saturday night at 9 pm and the long flight over had us touching down at Charles de Gaulle Airport on Sunday at 8:30 am. We were whisked through customs and onto a bus for the ride to International Paris – Le Grand Hotel. Our tour guide, Virginia, a Paris native, started our history lesson right off. The stuff she knows without notes was crazy. I was hoping there wouldn’t be a quiz by the end of the week – so many Louis’! I was getting confused. Which Louis lost their head and by what cousin Louis? I think we were up to #17 by the end of the week. It was good to have these offered as we were getting a gist of this remarkable place even though it was centuries of Paris history Virginia was throwing our way.
Since it was still too early to check in our group was offered a walking tour. We still had no idea who else was on the trip since the others were arriving later from Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, and New Jersey. Finally after a nice walk around and a few miles later we were back at the hotel to check in. Only a few hours later and it was time once again to climb aboard the tour bus (now two buses) and head to Notre Dame Cathedral with dinner planned at a nearby bistro. Now we would see who was a part of this trip. 25 dealers and reps along with significant others and our group totaled about 60. At the Cathedral, a mass was going on and I video recorded the music as we quietly walked around. It was a very humble experience and nice. Later, we took over a bistro where a planned dinner was served. It was tres bonne! Finally back to Le Grand Hotel after a long day. Phew!
We were now on a planned bus tour, longer and in depth with much more sightseeing. Virginia pointed out the stone pillars at one end of the roundabout we were traveling around that was originally where a guillotine was situated and where (among others) Marie Antoinette lost her head. Great. How many people going around that on their daily route contemplated that little fact nugget? Our destination was the Eiffel Tower after going past many museums, down the Champs D’Elysees and passing the Arch DeTriomphe de Etoille commissioned by Napoleon in 1806. It’s where the Tour de France begins and ends so that was pretty cool to see.
The Eiffel Tower was only supposed to be up for 20 years. It was erected by Alexandre Gustave Eiffel as the entrance arch to the 1889 World’s Fair. It is the most recognized and most visited monument structure in the world at 126 years strong. A lift ride or 300 steps later and we were on the 2nd floor. After only a short while extra police suddenly appeared and began roping off an area and telling us to hurry and move away. “Avant! Avant!” It was a scary moment but not too critical. We don’t know what happened – something about an unattended bag but they have to be proactive with so many people always there and with such an iconic image to protect.
There has been a continuing quest to keep “new Paris” from creeping into “old Paris” with its unparalleled limestone buildings that give it a forever uniqueness. The “old Paris” buildings are topped at four stories. Then you have the grand Eiffel Tower as a central statement within the streets of old Paris with its planned circular design. On the horizon and looming upward is the monster that Virginia kept referring to as the ‘Awful Tower’ and the name most Parisians probably know it as. It is a skyscraper that sits at the edge of ‘new Paris’ and ‘old Paris’. It does detract somewhat but at least ‘new Paris’ has been kept back in place and that’s a good thing.
We decided to have a take away lunch and sit in the grassy park under the Eiffel Tower and to go off on our own finding our own way back. The weather was sunny for once. Figuring out the Metro was fairly easy. It was a little different from Boston’s subway system in the one regard that when it stopped you best get in darn quick because there was no waiting one second for any slackers. We had euros in our pockets since we decided to convert some cash at Logan ahead of time and take the worry out of this one thing.
Back at Opera which was the Metro stop nearest out hotel and we still had some time to take in the rest of the afternoon. Oh, look – there’s a Starbuck’s just a block away and we stopped for a fresh cup. There are three Starbuck’s in the Paris area we noticed as we drove around. Dunkin’ Donuts was not to be found anywhere. Starbuck’s was a very Parisian place with (of course) lots of mirrors. Mirrors were a thing everywhere for some reason.
We had had enough walking around and decided, since dinner was on our own, we’d be happy to just be at the hotel’s own, Café de la Paix. I was hoping for food that would not be something weird like elephant ear crepes (only kidding) but then when in Rome…or Paris. According to the brochure it is legendary the world over with an award winning Chef. I must say the food served in Paris is fresh, smaller portions, but appropriate and always the presented with flair. No super- size here. It was very nice and we were happy not to have to take a taxi to get back but just a walk up the grand staircase (which we kept choosing to use just because and always with those huge mirrors along the way!)
We were given a letter that stated the presence of a Royal Delegation was to be at the hotel for three days. High security was to be put in place and we could only wonder who? Certain doors were now off limits, ‘suits’ were roaming everywhere and two of the three elevators were off limits. The red carpet was created and put in place. We saw a bus load of police outside that we were to be situated who knows where. But we were heading out for the day so it was still a mystery. There was some talk amongst our group that it was the King of Spain but no one at the hotel was talking.
The streets surrounding our hotel were blocked off as our tour bus tried to make its way but we eventually left for Versailles which was an extra trip we signed up for. In the rain we motored to King Louis 16th hunting lodge. This retreat was abandoned years before after the French Revolution and was basically up for grabs. Over the years people took whatever they wanted as many artifacts such as the tapestries, art pieces, furniture etc. were gone. Cows were wandering around at one point. By 1970 the French people decided they needed to preserve their history and started to reclaim all that was lost. Today it is an unbelievable grand structure and piece de resistance of French culture with vaulted masterfully painted ceilings and walls. Everyone was in their own tour group with ear pieces and microphones. It was pretty horrible as there were so many people, where pushing and shoving became the norm. One guy wished he had on a football helmet. Cross that off the list. We left and came back through the tunnel where Princess Diana had her unfortunate accident. It was a sad moment so long ago.
Back to our hotel and our card key did not work and so we could not access our room. We found out because of extra security we needed to take our passports to the front desk and be reassigned a new key card. I guess they wanted to absolutely be sure of who was in the hotel. We headed out to Starbuck’s again since we wanted to keep moving before we fell down from exhaustion. The young man remembered me when I placed our order. Too funny! The couple sitting near us looked familiar and I asked if they left Logan on the Saturday flight. They did and were on a river boat cruise down the Seine. Oh, and they just happened to be from next door in Windham. A short walk around and we came back to the hotel only to find something rather odd. All the formalities, the red carpet, the extra security were gone. What? It seems the King was indeed there for maybe one hour before he needed to depart and immediately head back to Spain. The German Airwings airliner disaster had happened while we were away which had left from Barcelona. It was surreal to watch the disaster unfold on the television. Did the jet fly over here I wondered? Crazy.
Dinner out was a bistro nearby and we lucked into it not needing a reservation. We felt comfortable using our limited French and where the staff would graciously and knowingly respond back in English.
The Basilica of the Sacre Coeurs in Montmartre is where we wanted to see which is located at the highest point in the north of Paris and part of the Right Bank. There is so much controversy and history in this Roman Catholic structure where the stone exudes calcite thus keeping it white. It was an amazing experience. The view from here is a panorama of the entire city. Many famous artists had studios or worked in Montmartre such as Modigliani, Monet, Van Gogh, Picasso and Dali among others. One can only imagine how their inspiration was derived. La Rive Droit or The Right Bank is most associated with the river Seine in central Paris. The river cuts the city in two with the Right Bank and refers to a level of sophistication and elegance (and money) not found in the more bohemian (a socially unconventional person especially an artist) Left Bank. How the now famous bohemian artists came to be here is anyone’s guess. Rents were low back then and the atmosphere inviting.
Musee de Louvre was on our ‘must see’ list as our trip was winding down. So many museums but this one would take all the rest of our time. It is one of the largest and most important museums in the world. It is housed in the expansive Louvre Palace with gardens, water features and walking paths. The Museum was established in the 16th century as the private collection of King Francis 1. He purchased the famous Mona Lisa painting. During the French Revolution in 1763, the Louvre became a museum open to the public and the private collections on view.
We were here in the middle of the week and the place was packed! We saw so many school children that were there for whatever reason and many I noticed paid no attention to anything they were walking by. Hopefully they’ll realize later how much they actually missed when they were there. We saw the Venus de Milo statue and so many other statues (I started making up stories, you know), the Mona Lisa portrait (smaller than you think), the paintings of Rembrandt and so much other great work. You couldn’t help but think of Tom Hanks in The Da Vinci Code with the classic images from the movie shot right there. The estimated time to see everything in the Musee de Louvre is 8 hours!
Dinner out that night was the other planned event. And let me tell you what a plan! We took the two buses from the hotel and arrived at Napoléon Bonaparte’s nephew, Prince Roland’s, La Shangri-La – Paris a five star grand hotel. This was at one time the residence of Napoleon and holds a command view of the Eiffel Tower and the river Seine. We were treated to pre-dinner champagne and French pastry out on the patio. The view was amazing! Dinner was in the receiving room of the hotel. We were treated to the beautiful music of a harpist as we enjoyed dinner and shared stories about our whirlwind adventures with the ones at our table. The guests were mixed throughout the dinner arrangement which meant we were meeting some people for the first time. It was good to hear their stories about business back home and their time in Paris.
The evening continued as we were a select audience to a class performance of theater. A man and women serenaded us for the next hour with selections of classic opera. It was quite impressive. (We found out the woman was from Montana!) The man seated next to me at dinner asked what they were singing. I said it was in Italian. He wanted to know what they were saying. I replied that I didn’t know but that you didn’t need to know. Just watching their mannerisms and how they played the room gave you enough of the story. We were all American gas station entrepreneurs and family members treated like royalty in France and it was grand.
Dinner ended with a few words from our sponsoring group organizers. We couldn’t have asked for a better and most unexpected trip to Europe. Taking the bus back to the hotel we were treated to one final grand gesture. Every night on the hour for five minutes the Eiffel Tower is lit up making a statement with its twinkling lights in this the city of lights.
We did some last minute shopping out and about after breakfast and before we needed to take the bus to the airport. I found my favorite Maille mustards (I know, I know…what?) and the famous Macarons. I could now leave in comfort.
The plane ride home was nearly 8 hours. I was too nervous to move because of the recent air disaster. (I swear the guy sitting next to me was a FAM (Federal Air Marshall). We watched the top movie “Bird Man” which was phenomenal and counted down the hours until we landed.
I thanked the captain for an uneventful flight. He smiled and said “de rien” (you’re welcome).